There can be no doubt that air pollution has gone from a niche area of policy to one of the key issues for government, our politicians and the public in little over two years.
With almost daily headlines on the impact of air pollution, from lung and heart disease, childhood asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia there is an urgent need to take action to clean up the air we breathe.
The latest estimates suggest that across Wales more than 2,000 lives are cut short each year from air pollution – or 6% of total annual deaths.
The debate so far has focussed on road transport emissions, and rightly so. Road transport is the single biggest contributor of UK Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) emissions, making up 80% of roadside emissions in polluted towns and cities and contributing around 15% of the UK’s Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and PM10 (particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter) emissions.
PM2.5 are minuscule particles invisible to the naked eye that are small enough to pass through the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Exposure to PM can affect respiratory conditions resulting in coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness and in some circumstances hospitalisation. Long-term exposure to PM has also been linked to asthma and lung cancer.
Yet there’s another silent killer and it comes in the form of the ultimate Hygge-inspired novelty of wood burning.
‘Canaries in coalmines’
There is now clear evidence of the link between high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of people presenting at hospitals and GP surgeries.
In a recent study carried out by the University of Dundee, researchers studied nearly 15 years of data for air pollution levels in Dundee, Perth and the surrounding area, matching air pollution levels to medical records of 450 patients who suffer from bronchiectasis, a long-term chronic condition which can cause a persistent cough and breathlessness as well as frequent chest infections.
What they found was that on days when air pollution levels spiked there was a large increase in admissions to Ninewells Hospital and Perth Royal Infirmary with breathing problems, known as exacerbations.
In that report researchers compared people suffering from lung conditions to ‘canaries in coalmines’, our front-line detectors in detecting how unbreathable and toxic our air is.
Our legal limits for particulate matter are over twice as high as those recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). We should also remind ourselves that, according to WHO, there is no entirely “safe” level of pollution and we should aim for levels as low as possible. A 2018 report by King’s College London also predicts that the public health benefits of any future actions to mitigate climate change, including tackling emissions from road transport, will be off-set by increases in non-exhaust emissions and biomass.
The key suspect in these findings is the ultimate art of Danish hygge: cosy novelty wood burners.
Domestic wood and coal burning now contribute up to 38% of PM2.5 emissions in the UK.
Burning wood with a moisture content of more than 20% (or ‘wet wood’) is estimated to account for an enormous 20,000 tonnes, or 20%, of the UK’s annual PM2.5 emission. The burning of coal accounts for 11,250 tonnes of emissions.
So, whilst our focus on road transport and NO2 is key, we also need to tackle the boom in novelty wood burners choking our towns and cities.
What’s the solution?
These are measures that the Welsh Government could incorporate into its Clean Air Plan.
- Adopt the World Health Organisation’s limit for PM2.5 into law through a new Clean Air Act for Wales
Our recent report Toxic air at the door of the NHS, revealed that more than 57 health centres – 54 GP practices and 3 hospitals – across Wales are above the WHO’s limit for PM2.5. Estimates suggest that more than 13,500 life-years are lost as a result of PM2.5 levels in Wales.
A new Clean Air Act for Wales would adopt the best health standards into law.
- Introduce a ban on the retail sale of all wet wood
Burning wet wood produces more smoke emissions than dry wood and dry wood emits 900 tonnes of PM2.5 compared to the whopping 20,000 tonnes from wet wood. Estimates suggest that curtailing the burning of wet wood would contribute to an 8-10% reduction in the UK’s PM2.5 emissions.
- Introduce a nationwide ban on the sale and burning of smoky coal
The burning of typical household coal accounts for 11,250 of the UK’s annual emissions of PM2.5 in comparison to the 2,000 emitted by the burning of smokeless coal.
The smoky coal ban, first introduced in Dublin in 1990 before being extended to the next 25 largest urban areas in the country in 2013, resulted in significant falls in respiratory problems and premature deaths. It is estimated that approximately 8,000 premature deaths have been averted in Dublin since the introduction of the smoky coal ban in 1990.
Yet there is no such equivalent in Wales, and it is estimated that a shift to the burning of smokeless coal would result in a 10% reduction in the UK’s PM2.5 emissions.
- Information to consumers and a public awareness campaign
A new regulatory framework would require the packaging of dry wood and smokeless coal for retail sale to include information on the health impact of solid fuel burning, how to efficiently burn solid fuels, and how to store wood for burning.
A campaign based on clear, accurate and robust health information will ensure that people know how to protect themselves.
- A funded plan to alleviate fuel poverty
We need to support those using burning as their primary heat source towards cleaner heating sources. Government should ensure that those in fuel poverty who are reliant on burning for residential heating are able to access energy efficiency and home heating grants or upgrades free of cost. Government could leverage private capital to fund the wide-scale installation of solar thermal and heat pump technologies, targeted at those areas facing the greatest levels of fuel poverty.
Estimates by King’s College London suggest that if we fail to reduce non-exhaust emissions any future climate change action would have limited public health benefits, making residential fuel burning the next contender for urgent intervention so we can one day all breathe clean air with healthy lungs.
These measures are actions that we could begin to take now that could have a real impact on emissions, public health, and our environment in the long term.
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